I will say very little about it except for (a) it was awesome, (b) I now want my own Harris hawk, and (c) look at my happy little face.
When I started this blog back in September, I said I wanted to walk the South West Coast Path before I turned 40, but of course, I really wanted more than that. I was seeking the usual clichés: balance, contentment, challenge, happiness. The sense of feeling myself again. It’s the familiar wish-list of the thirtysomething mother. We had it all. We want it all back again.
But I knew, also, that my wish-list wasn’t quite the same as everyone else’s. Walking was both a symbolic and a practical act for me. I wanted it to bring me wellness and respite, certainly; but I also wanted to feel my feet on solid ground again. I thought I could walk back to a time when I knew what I was; when I was competent and sure-footed. Strangely, the more I explored, the more elusive that time seemed. The ground was crumbling under my feet.
In December, I learned that I have Asperger syndrome.
I hope that comes as a surprise to you. I hope I wasn’t the last to know. I have spent my whole life so far trying to cover it up, without understanding what I was concealing: only that I was different; only that, in my natural state, I wasn’t acceptable. It has mostly felt like I’m trying to zip an unruly bundle of clothes into a tiny suitcase. Every time I manage to restrain one, disordered corner (I talk for too long; I interrupt people), another one bursts out (I come off as aloof; I flinch when people touch me).
I grew up in an era when being on the autistic spectrum was not considered a positive attribute. Mind you, neither was being a friendless weirdo, but that’s another story. The thought of owning my new label still leaves me terrified: from now on, everything I say and do will be seen through the lens of autism. In many ways, I need that; I need my context to be understood. But I also want to be accepted as a person in my own right. My achievements are my own, and my mistakes are too. I hate the idea of being tolerated out of charity. I’ve fought all my life to be liked on my own terms, and I’m not letting go of that.
Mostly, I’m awash with relief at my diagnosis. Asperger syndrome is a secret I’ve been keeping from myself for a long time. Until a couple of months ago, I’d have told you that I love parties; that I’m a social animal. I wouldn’t have been lying; but, equally, that’s never represented the truth. I have spent my whole adult life believing that I love parties, and then making myself sick with anxiety in the run-up to them. If I attended at all, I hid in the toilets and then left early. Never once did I recognise this as a pattern, but apparently all my friends did. While I’ve been coming out – stutteringly, red-faced – nearly everyone has told me a story of my own disappearance at a social event. I don’t even remember half of them. It seems that I’m famous for vanishing.
I don’t have to go to a party ever again now, but I will. Perhaps just for an hour, just to show my face. Here’s the thing about being diagnosed with Asperger syndrome at 38: the worst of it is already over. I’ve worked out how to get by – successfully, actually – and I’ve found people who love me more than I love myself. And I love them, too, even if I’m sometimes baffled by how much feeling they manage to do.
That’s a joke, by the way. An Aspie joke. Everything I read seems to suggest they’re unlikely, but there you go. Over the last few months, I’ve had to accept that most of my assumptions about Asperger syndrome are wrong. I don’t think I’m alone in that. That’s partly because female Aspies are in the minority, and we’re different; but it’s also because it’s one of those popular labels that amateur psychologists like to bandy about, and they largely have no idea what they’re talking about. I have no right to criticise. I’m a learner-driver myself. Trust me, I’m still reeling from the shock that I’m the autistic one in my marriage.
But, anyway, this is supposed to be a walking blog, and thank goodness for that. I don’t know how walking led me to understand what I am, but I’m certain that it did. When I walk for a long time, my mind gradually blanks itself, and the natural sounds – water, wind, birdsong – calm me. In that space, the ground is laid for those big, life-changing thoughts. There was nothing conscious; no eureka moment. But one day, I was driving in my car, and a woman on the radio was describing life with Asperger syndrome, and I thought, simply, Oh yes; just like me.
There’s more to it than that, of course, but it’s enough for now. I’ll carry on walking and writing about it. It’s the best way I’ve ever found to reset myself. I’m not sure if I’ll be following quite the same walk that I planned, but then, I’m finding that a lot, lately.
This post follows on from Days 11 & 12: Appledore to Clovelly – probably best to read it first
After a couple of days, my friend Beccy (who you have met before) joins me. I rush like a child to show her the vertebra I found earlier in the week, and she turns it in her archaeologist’s hands, declares, ‘Bovid, first cervical,’ and then sniffs it and says, authoritatively, ‘Bronze Age.’
‘How on earth did you smell the Bronze Age?’ I say.
An incredulous stare. ‘I didn’t. It’s come out of peat. That’s how I know it’s Bronze Age. Why else would it be brown?’
‘I don’t know. The sea?’
On balance, though, it’s a win; it may be cow rather than whale, but it’s old enough for people to be paid to reverently dig it up (although not Beccy; it’s pointlessly recent as far as she’s concerned).
I spread the map out over the floor of our holiday lodge and pretend to trace our route while I spill out my feelings: I’m failing, managing only 10 miles a day when I need to do 16; I’m never going to achieve anything like the mileage I hoped for, and I might as well give up; everyone’s running around after me; it’s financially ruinous; I’m selfish. All I ever wanted to do was walk the South Hams of Devon again, and I’m hundreds of miles away from it. I don’t want Cornwall. I don’t even like the idea of it. I’m sick of walking. It’s no fun.
I receive, in return, a stern talking-to. I am not engaging with the simple realities of the weather, nor of 20 minutes per mile + 5 per contour. ‘It’s winter,’ she says; ‘you need to make allowances. Nobody could go much faster than you’re managing.’ We sketch out a sensible itinerary from Clovelly to Hartland Point, and I grudgingly agree to give it another go.
We set off the next morning in Beccy’s little van, having brushed icicles off the car. Winding along the amusingly-named Atlantic Highway (which is definitely not the one namechecked by the B52s), we are assailed by sleet. ‘Oh god,’ I say, and make an early start on my emergency bag of M&Ms.
However, once we set off, blue skies break out, and we enjoy a level stroll through parkland and open fields. After a couple of hours, we glimpse the radar tower at Hartland Point, and by midday we’re sitting on a picnic bench in its shadow, eating our sandwiches.
‘What time’s our lift?’ I ask.
‘Five,’ says Beccy.
‘We’d better text H, then, and get him to pick us up somewhere else.’
We unfold the map, and estimate that it’s an hour or so to Hartland Quay, and so make plans to go past it to Welcombe Mouth. I marvel at Beccy’s ability to estimate distances so well, and I get the stare again.
‘I’m just using the grid. You…you do know that each square is a kilometre, don’t you?’
I have to confess I do not, but I thank her gratefully for the information, and then never hear the end of it. We set off again, entering a new landscape where waves crash onto dark rocks with unbelievable force, and the familiar patten of climbs and descents begins again. Except here, there are waterfalls to find at the high points, flooding down into the waves, and the valleys between them are lush and green, with trickling streams and concealed, higgedy cottages.
We begin to agree that the path is agonising in its commitment to clinging to the far reaches of the shore, but now it’s also breathtakingly beautiful, in a way that’s almost unfathomable. Beccy suggests that, when she dies, instead of a memorial bench, we should erect a bridge in her name that saves walkers some particularly brutal climb-and-descent.
‘Or,’ she says, ‘We could erect one of those benches and then ritually burn it, because they’re bloody useless.’
The walk to Hartland Quay takes three hours instead of one, but they were heart-stoppingly beautiful hours in which we repeatedly stopped to catch our breath and gaze at the land: high, exposed ridges; cathedrals of stone jutting out of the sea; valleys so calm as to be otherworldly. It helped, of course, that all of it was set against a periwinkle sky, and that I had great company. But it also reminded me what a privilege it is to be coming back again and again to struggle along this path. It’s extraordinary.
‘I ended up making the same mistake as you,’ says Beccy as we sit in the hotel bar at Hartland Quay. ‘I suddenly thought I could walk on forever.’
The next day starts greyer, and the weather grows steadily worse. The valleys become stranger and more beguiling, and the climbs steeper and more wild. We are followed wherever we go by ravens, warning us off their cliff-edge nests with low croaks, and we watch larks rising above the fields, letting out their strange, mechanical song. Really, a unicorn wouldn’t have surprised us.
The winds rise, blasting squall into our faces, and we stagger through it, past a cliff-fall so deep that some of the path has been lost.
‘This is awful,’ I say.
‘The problem with you is that you take the weather personally.’
It’s true, I do. But that doesn’t make it any less dreadful. Soon after, though, we cross a bridge and find ourselves in Cornwall, finally. I’ve walked the entire northern edge of Devon, and it feels incredible. I take a gurning selfie of myself in a hat I’ve borrowed from Beccy, and marvel at what a geek I look. I completed my first walk from Minehead to Porlock in lipstick; now, I am creating wind-blown evidence of myself in terrible headwear, and I don’t care.
Eventually, we stagger inland into Morwenstow, having taken all day to walk a paltry 7 miles. They were undeniably awe-inspiring miles, though, and even I would struggle to argue that I’d rather not have walked them. Besides, Morwenstow is full of snowdrops and wild garlic, and the churchyard has a celtic cross to admire, and a ship’s figurehead commemorating the lives of sailors who were wrecked on those extraordinary rocks. It feels only right to labour to get to a place like this.
Note: this walk took place in February and I am very late in writing it. Sorry. Have been massively busy *grovels*.
I’ve noticed that my SW Coast Path walks have become less of a leisure activity, and more of a gruelling contest against my own soul. I’m sure this wasn’t what I imagined when I dreamed up this whole thing.
To be fair, it’s not the path’s fault; it’s the winter’s. The path remains lovely, if exposed and extremely damp underfoot. I had been hearing about high winds and flooding in the South West for the last couple of weeks, and the effect of this is plain as soon as I leave Appledore. The ground is sodden. Northam Burrows is one great big puddle. A beautiful, crow-blown puddle, but also pretty much impassable. I divert onto the road.
Rounding the corner at Westward Ho! (the only place in the UK with a native exclamation mark, which makes me unaccountably happy!), my heart lifts a little. Granted, I had expected such a grand name to signal a town that was a little less desolate, but the roar of the sea is everwhere, and I glimpse the white-horsed thunder of the waves from between buildings.
Shortly after that, the ground begins to roll, and I fall back into my familiar climb-and-descent, spluttering at the effort. Except today, the path is so wet that the slopes are like treadmills, gliding my feet back to their starting-place at each step. My legs quickly become coated in thick, brick-red mud, making my trousers heavy and sticky.
At the top of one hill, I pause to watch a waterfall and then turn to see a descent so steep that I’m certain I won’t ever get down it. The path has other ideas; as I am standing, wondering what to do, I begin to slide spontaneously towards the bottom. I have never been skiing, but I hope it’s more enjoyable than this. My arms windmill about me as I attempt to grab on to anything that will steady me, but all that’s on offer is gorse, brambles and barbed wire. I opt for the lesser of three evils and grasp at the gorse, which means I am picking thorns out of my palms for the next fortnight. Despite this, I still manage to fall on my backside (twice), and land at the bottom in what can only be described as ill humour.
This mood is not improved when I turn the next corner to see a waymarker for my destination, Peppercombe: 5 miles. Due to my habitual crapness at map-reading, I thought the whole walk was 5 miles. Apparently not. I have 5 miles to go, I am mud-caked, and the sun is due to set in roughly an hour.
Muttering under my breath, I press on, clambering down onto a grey-pebbled cove on jelly legs. I am mentally composing letters to The Authorities: the first tackling the idiotic use of barbed wire alongside walking paths; the second bemoaning the sheer bloody-mindedness of a path that has to dip down into every fucking cove when there’s a perfectly good route around the top of the cliffs. Just at the moment, I spot what looks like an exotic seed-pod on the beach, a giant star anise the size of a hand, perhaps washed in from Zanzibar. On closer inspection, it’s a vertebra, washed brown by the sea. I’m delighted. It must surely be from a whale. I slot it into my backpack and press on. I can’t wait to show it to Bert.
There’s miles to go from there – more rise-and-fall, and much more mud. I finally arrive at Peppercombe in near-darkness, and bad-temperedly trudge the extra half-mile onto the road, convinced that H could have driven down to get me. But the gate at the top of the path is locked, and Bert is running along to meet me. I’m too exhausted to speak. I sit in the open boot and strip off my trousers in full view of passing cars. I don’t care. At that moment, nothing feels better than clean leggings and the warm blast of the car heater.
The next day was a little better: 7 miles on to Clovelly through deep, mossy forest. I mostly only glimpsed the sea, and spent a great deal of time traversing fields so saturated that I had to detour along their uppermost edges.
I could have gone further, but I didn’t. When I reached the car, Bert was asleep in the back. They hadn’t had lunch yet; they were waiting for me, and I was late, as ever. Bert, I knew, was desperate to swim in our holiday camp’s pool, and yet he’d been out all day so that they were able to pick me up. It was Valentine’s Day.
I suddenly had a sickening vision of myself as a demanding child, expecting everyone else to work around me while I walked in remote places, and got muddy, took time to myself, and complained about it. I was wet, and uncomfortable, and tired, and muddy, and lonely, but most of all, I was being indulged. I hated that feeling. I hated the path. I hated my instinct to turn everything into a big, difficult challenge, when we could just as well be having fun together, somewhere warm.
I decided to give up walking for a couple of days, while I worked out what to do next.
I’ll finish the story tomorrow. In the meantime, that vertebra in full:
Everyone has to start somewhere, right? Here’s my practice-run on the General Prologue, in which I veer between West-Country, Brummie, Glaswegian and bafflement in my attempts to untangle the language.
P.S. if you’d like to join me – and please do! – I’ll be posting about The Knight’s Tale next Friday (1st). Add a comment, tweet me, write a blog post, or make an AudioBoom like this one. I’ll post them all up here.
The appeal, for a heathen like me, is that I get to walk all the way from London to Canterbury – 75 miles – in just four days. I’ve never done anything like this before. I’m not all that convinced I’ll manage. But still; I want to give it a go. I want to know how it feels to cover that distance on foot. And I’d love to raise some money for their great cause along the way.
As part of my preparations, I’m doing something else that I’ve never done before – tackling Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, in the original Middle English. I know. I really should have read it by now. It’s frankly embarrassing.
Still, it’s never too late to start on Chaucer, or so they (don’t) say. I will be ably assisted by my colleague Dr Mike Bintley, who finds The Canterbury Tales hilariously recent and probably dreams in Old English. He and I will be putting together a series of podcasts as I work my way through the text, so that you can laugh at my total incompetence. I warn you now: I will be saying, ‘I’m a social scientist by training!’ an awful lot, which is what I tend to do whenever my lack of literary knowledge becomes apparent.
Anyway: join me! I’m hoping you’ll read along with me, and we can share the linguistic highs and lows. I’ll be reading in this order:
- The Knight’s Tale
- The Miller’s Prologue and Tale
- The Reeve’s Prologue and Tale
- The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale
- The Merchant’s Prologue, Tale and Epilogue
(Yes, I realise there are others; I have the whole, fat brick of a book in front of me. Let’s just keep it manageable for now, shall we?)
The edition I’m using is the Penguin Classics, ed. Jill Mann (2005). I’ve also been told to pick up a copy of The Riverside Chaucer, which I have dutifully done.
There has been a hiatus.
After November’s expensive one-day wallow (which not only cost me two nights’ stay in a hotel for a mere 14 miles, but also finally killed off my beloved ASBOs*), I have been somewhat reluctant to fork out for another fruitless trip. I watched the weather throughout December, but it didn’t ever seem to stop raining. I did not particularly want to meet my maker by slipping of a cliff-top path. I resolved to hold out for fairer weather.
If it sounds like I’ve lost interest, then I’ve given you the wrong impression. I am obsessed with walking. I fantasise about the way it makes me feel, and I’m squeezing it into every corner of my life that will accept it. I’ve taken out a gym membership so that I can elongate the muscles in my calves with yoga, cross-train with swimming, and, three times a week, set the incline on the treadmill to 12%, and imagine I’m yomping up a hill while listening to Robert McFarlane audiobooks through my earbuds. It’s surprisingly effective, if you ignore the queue that forms behind you after 45 minutes.
I have also started walking a different path to tide me over. The North Downs Way is beguilingly close to my house, runs to a compact 153 miles, and throws the odd hill at me to keep my mountain-goat hooves in practice.
I set off from Dover sea front on 20th December, and amble up through the town while I find my bearings. It’s a down-on-its-luck sort of a place, but there are glimpses of smart Victorian prosperity still to be found here and there, and they become more evident as I rise up towards the Downs through streets of genteel redbrick villas. I nearly slide through an old railway arch, and pass a disused mine shaft before finding myself on bleak fields, the A2 never far away.
I don’t see a soul – not in the residential streets, and certainly not on the path. It’s an eccentricity to be out walking so near to Christmas, an extravagance; the winds are high enough to make it all feel like hard work, and the skies are low, grey and featureless. Several times, I find the path so churned with mud that I have to make a detour around the far edge of a field. I am waiting for vistas, for the land to open up, but it never does. Eventually, I stagger into Shepherdswell at lunchtime, just in time for a roast lamb dinner and a pint of bitter shandy in The Bell.
Just over a week later, I’m back, but this time with H in tow. My mother is staying with us, so we take the rare opportunity to walk together for once while she looks after Bert. We start again outside The Bell, and immediately find ourselves in a field with a country fox darting in front of us, ignored by two horses. This time, we pass through a series of picturesque villages: the genteel manor and thatch of Womenswold; across the A2 to Kingston, where we discover the brilliantly-named Black Robin, to which we vow to return; through Bishopsbourne and Bridge, where I begin to say, I could live here, you know, quite happily, out in the country…
Eventually we take the final hike across flat fields towards Canterbury at dusk. H, has never walked this far in his life, is exhausted, but we’re on the pilgrim’s way now, and the cathedral is always in sight, lighting up as dusk falls.
The next week, we’re back for more, but this time the rain pours on us all the way from Canterbury to Chartham, where we give up at a road junction after a particularly treacherous skid down a muddy hill, which leaves H wailing about his lack of adequate footwear, and me furious at the weather for denying me my walk. We think of going home, and feel desolate, but then decide to ignore our soaking clothes and wet shoes, and to drive back to a pub we passed on last week’s walk (The Mermaid in Bishopsbourne) and then on to another (The Duck in Pett Bottom) for a very late lunch on willow pattern china.
We might walk again next week too, if the weather’s a bit more cooperative, pressing on to Wye, where the Downs become vertiginously steep. If I get the chance, I might stray from the path and scale those steep chalk escarpments, just to keep my hand in for the climbs I’m really craving.
*If I’m being entirely honest, I drove the final nail in the coffin by leaving them wet in a carrier bag for a fortnight.
I was all set, you see. I was ready to go. This month, I would cover 30 miles (I’m easily fit enough to do 2 days of 15 miles now, surely), and this would bring me to two, neat brinks: the brink of 100 miles, and the brink of the Cornish border. I was beginning to wonder – quietly, to myself – whether I might actually finish the whole thing a lot earlier than I planned.
Ha! The pride-fall interface is alive and well. What happened? The weather happened.
I had been watching it all week. It was going to rain, there was no doubt about it. But I thought perhaps I might attempt to pull off the there’s no such thing as bad weather; just bad clothing thing for once in my life. I had merino thermals; I had a micro-fleece. I had (courtesy of my mother) a jacket so waterproof that I could probably sail in it. I had repaired my beloved ASBOs with yellow Sugru, and was rather proud of my handiwork.
On Saturday morning, it all began to feel very different. For one thing, we had learned that our hotel’s definition of a ‘suite’ was a normal-sized room with a camp-bed in it, and, coupled with an unfathomable baby-listening system, this meant that we had little choice but to get into bed at the same time as Bert on Friday night (H, inevitably in the camp-bed). On Saturday morning, I read the grim news of the Paris attacks over breakfast, laced on my boots, and trudged out into the grey, squally drizzle, still digesting the appalling events of the night before.
I already knew that today’s walk wouldn’t be the most exciting one on my itinerary – I was essentially walking up the other side of the estuary that I’d walked down the last time – but it’s hard to describe just how boring it is to walk 15 miles into oncoming rain. You can see absolutely nothing, because your head is angled relentlessly down. Your glasses steam up, but there’s no point in wiping them. Your neck begins to ache. Progress is slow.
I kept trying to feel wonder – at the fluting call of curlews, and the flock of goldfinch that flitted up the path in front of me – but it all just dissipated into the grey. I berated myself for failing to feel gratitude at the privilege of making time to be here, at being alive, but there are few tastes more bitter than enforced gratitude. By the time I trudge into Bideford at about lunchtime, I am conscious that my feet are squelching in my badly-repaired boots, and a gust of wind nearly blows me into the road as I cross the bridge. I walk into the nearest pub, and hear a woman gasp, ‘Oh my god, look at her!’ and I offer her a weak smile. I order a pint of shandy and a plate of nachos and fully intend to give up.
But after forty minutes, I can’t think of anything else to do but to press on. I text H to ask him to meet me in Appledore. The rain has stopped, and there might be sea in prospect if I can keep going. Now, though, the path turns muddy, and for all my pleasure in seeing the back of the endless concrete cycle path around the estuary, I am slipping and sliding with every tenth step. The ground is sodden. I am sodden. More than this, my thoughts have turned dark, churning the same worries over and over in my mind, an endless cycle that becomes more paranoid with every rehearsal. I try to reason with myself (You’re worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet!), and then to mock my inner voice (This again? Don’t you have anything better to think about?) but every time, the sense of doom seeps back in. It’s funny: I’ve been nearly desperate for these hours on my own, but now they’re here, I’m unable to cope with them.
I decide not to walk the next day. The rain and wind have been joined by a thick layer of fog, and my boots are still wet from yesterday. But really, I’m grateful to have all that as an excuse. I can say, It’s not safe, but actually my knees ache and I just don’t have the heart.